24 May 2018

When grief just won't come

Brothers, Oregon (elevation 4,640 feet)

As envy goes, it's not a bad thing -- the sympathy and even admiration I feel for my friends when they're grieving their parents and, in recalling the years gone by, crediting those parents with setting them on the right path. Sometimes as I read or hear these stories, I get a funny sort of reverse nostalgia, imagining what it would have been like to have parents like that.

My actual story is somewhat different: my parents were alcoholics, racists, and occasionally violent -- to the dishes and furniture, to each other, and to the children. As they neared their respective deaths, their paths diverged dramatically: my father Harald became a Christian (Eastern Orthodox, thanks to the influence of a wonderful Greek chaplain at the VA hospital in Waukegan, Illinois). Harald became more open to sharing about his own life and regrets, before, sadly, he lost the ability to speak a few weeks before he died in 1995. I still think of questions I wish I'd asked him, but at least we made a start. In my imagination, I can bring some of his favorite growing-up stories to life ... like the homemade rockets he launched at his school in Nazi-occupied Oslo.

My mother Erika, on the other hand, did not like answering questions about her growing-up years in Japan. I vividly remember my very last visit with her, at the nursing home where she eventually died in 2007. I realized that this was maybe my last chance to know her and be known by her. She received me cordially, but turned away all my questions about Japan and the war, and after ten minutes dismissed me.

The few glimpses I had into her earlier life usually came during our parents' truly epic knock-down arguments. One memorable theme of several fights concerned which of them had seen more death and cruelty during the war. My mother held the trump cards ... her city had been bombed heavily by the U.S., and she also told about witnessing the flash of Hiroshima from her train seat on that awful morning of August 6, 1945. On the other hand, I was never sure how much to believe of her stories, because some of her claims simply seemed fantastic. Did she really go to Indira Gandhi's birthday party? Was her wartime community really supplied by German submarines, and did she actually have a teenage romance with a submarine captain? Why wasn't her family evacuated to rural locations, as the Japanese government required of many other Germans during those years?

Most of all, I wanted to know what influences formed her militant racism, atheism, and antisemitism, and why we children were not allowed to talk about sickness and death in her presence, or about religion. Any of these topics could provoke her into rage. It was only in my adult years that I began to realize that mental health was part of this picture, but by then I seemed to have lost any chance of forming a mature relationship with her.

My parents bookend a family shapshot from around 1960.
Larimer Park, Evanston, Illinois, USA.
My parents eventually evicted me from home, a few days before my high school graduation. During the stormy years before that ultimate nightmarish incident, I have to admit to some coping mechanisms of my own that didn't contribute to relationship-building. I found that, when things got tense, one way to avoid becoming the target of parental rage was to set my parents against each other. I blush to think of the times I would form a tactical alliance with one of my parents against the other, only to switch sides pragmatically as needed. My father basically survived through passivity ("preserving the family peace"), so at one moment I could sympathize with him and the trials of being married to such a volatile person, but when my mother complained about her passive husband, I might find myself seeming to take her side! On one of the rare occasions when I confronted both of them simultaneously -- that's the very event that resulted in my literally being put out on the street.

When my father died, my mother was adamantly opposed to holding a funeral. Judy and I went to Waukegan as quickly as we could after hearing of my father's death. Upon arrival, we found that Erika had ordered mortician services by writing to a randomly chosen firm from the yellow pages. Yes, she wrote a paper letter instead of telephoning or visiting, which is how she (firm believer in her "master race" identity) unknowingly chose a black-owned business, whose proprietor could not conceal his puzzlement about our family when Judy and I stopped in to finalize the arrangements.

My Canadian cousin Axel Heyerdahl and I worked with the veterans' hospital chaplain, Father George, to put together a memorial service at the hospital with both Axel and George leading the service. My mother was not present. She didn't explain her opposition to having a service, but I remembered that, when my sister Ellen was murdered at age 14, there was also no service at all. I only knew where Ellen was buried because I accidentally came across the mortician's bill on my parents' desk. ($570 in 1970 dollars.)

When my mother died in 2007, she left no instructions. (In fact, I didn't even find out she died until several days later.) My sister Renee and I arranged for a memorial service to be held at the nursing home where Erika died, and I led the service. I hope she would forgive me!

When my friends and relatives reminisce about their recently deceased parents, no matter how lovely and often funny their stories are, and no matter how much the stories explain the survivors' good qualities, those retellings are often seasoned with deep grief. I have this hollow feeling that I too should be feeling grief, but it hasn't happened yet. I sit here and try to detect even a vestige. So far, nothing.

However, there is progress of a sort. With the advantage of decades of counseling (both giving and receiving), classes in pastoral care, and conversations with others who've had similar biographies, I'm better able to think about the social contexts that formed and controlled my parents' choices. It used to irritate me almost beyond endurance when people said, "Your parents did the best they could." It never seemed that they put much effort into doing the best for their children; they had other priorities, and we mostly raised ourselves. I interpret that cliche a bit differently now: my parents had little idea of what the "best" might be. Racism, atheism, alcohol, the culture of obedience ... all combined to rob them of tools that might have given them more choices and a higher vision.

I have also made progress in forgiveness. The biggest step happened about fifteen years ago. I preached a sermon on forgiveness at Reedwood Friends Church, at the end of which I publicly tore up my copy of the codicil to my parents' will that removed me from the family trust. That document served no purpose other than to poison my feelings about my parents, so it was a liberating act to destroy it.

(The full truth: after the meeting for worship was over, I looked at the little pile of paper scraps, and thought out loud about whether they could be taped back together. A member of Reedwood approached, and as I watched silently, her hands scooped up the scraps. She gently said, "I'll take care of those.")

Am I capable of grief in general? Yes, very much so -- my sister Ellen's death was the first of many losses that have left me in no doubt about that. The deaths of my cousin Axel and my former colleague Gordon, and many other emotional blows, were also devastating in their time. I'm reserving a space for my heart and head to catch up with the loss of my parents, sooner or later.

Do you have a similar hollow place of ungrieved loss? What sort of work are you doing that I might also learn from?

When grief just won't come, part two.

I'm not sure whether this is how my father made his homemade rockets, but I do remember that his account involved soaking and drying newspaper pages.

My Twitter feed is dominated right now by shocked reactions to a Pew survey showing that white evangelicals are the demographic group least likely to agree that the USA has a responsibility to accept refugees. Be shocked but don't be surprised; there is little correlation between the social label "evangelical" and actual evangelical discipleship.

Bill Yoder: Russian Baptists choose new leadership.

Bill Samuel on Pentecost.

Becky Ankeny: Hope and living water.

Excellent episode of The Russia Guy podcast: interview with David Filipov.

The Mannish Boys in Germany...


Jade said...

Thank you for sharing this personal grief story, Johan. I can very much relate. I carried my dad's ashes for almost ten years because I didn't know what to do with them. Sending love and prayers that you know you have all the time you need. <3

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Jade!

I also didn't know what to do with my mother's ashes. Eventually I allowed the default option, which was to let the funeral home scatter them in its "memory grove."

My father's body was another story entirely. He was buried in a VA-linked cemetery. My mother required that they choose a cemetery not too close to her nursing home in Zion (!!!) Illinois. I remember that the nearest VA-eligible cemetery was five miles away, and that was too close.

Ellen Cooney said...

Thank you, Johan. I have been dealing with similar issues, trying to get to forgiveness, and one person said something that really stays with me: Forgiving does not mean giving approval for what harm was done. It is instead acknowledging the harm but moving beyond that.

Johan Maurer said...

Ellen, it's good to hear from you. I won't ever reconcile myself to being disowned, but ripping up that document was a crucial step of detoxing my life. Kicking me out of the home at nearly midnight and not helping me find a place to stay (I slept in a park) was a difficult start on a path that led me to many good things, starting with the angels in my extended family who helped me move on.

The hardest family sin to forgive was the racism that ultimately led to my sister Ellen's death, but it was also the easiest thing to explain, given my mother's growing-up years in the Nazi race cult. She hardly came up with all that on her own.